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California Fire Whisperers 

Facing down region's wildfires by divining where the flames will spread

Wednesday, Dec 5 2007
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LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT firefighters and helicopter pilots were on “high-hazard fire staffing” in the early hours of November 24 as the Santa Ana winds picked up. Battalion Chief Tony Marrone of Air Operations was getting some shuteye in the three-bedroom dorm at Pacoima’s Barton Heliport when the alarm bell went off. It was 3:43 a.m. His pager followed.

It was his worst nightmare after the brutal season of charred homes in California: A five-acre brush fire had broken out near Corral Canyon Road in Malibu. Seventy-five firefighters from at least 15 county fire stations were en route to the blaze, which started off a dirt road near a cave — a late-night party hangout. Callers to 911 reporting the fire also said they heard speeding cars and horns blaring at 3:23 a.m.

“There are no power lines to start the fire,” says Marrone, an affable man in his mid-40s. “There is nothing to start a fire there.”

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Within minutes, Marrone was riding shotgun in one of the county’s pricey Bell 412 helicopters toward the Santa Monica Mountains. Marrone — the helicopter coordinator for most of L.A. County’s largest fire disasters — instantly realized that they needed more air power, and quickly dispatched three Black Hawk helicopters, an action taken at night only if lives or property are in jeopardy. The fire, visible 20 miles away, was helped along by 30 mph winds. It had creeped to within a mile of the community of Malibu Bowl, and the neighborhood of El Nido was also in its path.

By the time they controlled the fire two days later, close to 2,000 firefighters, 14 water-dropping helicopters, 13 air tankers and two Super Scoopers had battled the Corral Fire, but not before it burned 4,901 acres, destroyed 53 homes, injured eight firefighters and forced the evacuation of thousands.

“We were getting jostled around,” says Marrone, raising his voice over a loud background noise (it turns out he’s so dedicated to his job, he’ll answer media questions while chowing down on macaroni or trying to take a shower). “It was a bumpy ride.”

He’s an old hand, a guy who understands the personalities of fires, judging wind speed, fire progression, topography, brush thickness — and deciding when to send in an air assault. It’s not an exact science, more of an art. He’ll even resort to the Thomas Brothers Guide if it can be of help. He wears a flashlight around his neck so he can read maps at night — as if he’s trying to figure out what the fire is thinking.

Call him a fire whisperer. In May 2007, Marrone predicted within half an hour the time at which the roaring 40-foot-tall wall of fire on Catalina Island, fueled by winds and brush, would reach Avalon and its 3,200 residents. Hundreds of residents and tourists were loaded onto ferries and whisked to San Pedro, while hundreds of firefighters aided by four helicopters dropped water.

But even as Malibu burned in late November, and Marrone sweated out the hours “eating Motrin,” several miles away another fire whisperer — grounded city of Los Angeles Fire Department pilot Steve Robinson — was getting calls from L.A. County’s fire chiefs asking for an entirely different kind of fire-mapping help. Pronto.

Unlike the county’s low-tech Marrone with his Thomas Brothers Guide and flashlight, the city’s Robinson is a high-tech fire whisperer, working virtually alone to create a system that uses computers, cameras and geographical data to mimic what Marrone does so well with his eyes. Robinson’s dream is to use that high-tech information to instantly share a visual picture of the wildfire with dozens of fire honchos who can make quick decisions on where and how to attack advancing flames.

That morning, however, county fire officials weren’t calling Robinson for his cutting-edge program, admittedly still months from perfection, but for his expertise with the long-proven and widely accepted technique of thermal infrared imaging, which picks out the fire’s “hot spots” so ground crews can put them out before they reignite. And “hot spots” are not just a few embers burning — they are invisible, superheated brushy areas near the ground that can feed an entirely new fire after eluding detection, sometimes days afterward.

ROBINSON’S rather large office, in a hard-to-find unmarked building at the city’s Air Ops next to Van Nuys Airport, is filled with equipment: gargantuan printers, a computer, a television and high-tech gadgetry. A topographical map of the Corral Fire in Malibu hangs on Robinson’s office wall. The huge red blob in the center shows the area where the fire burned. Next to his computer is an award for special achievement in geographical information systems technology, but the paperweight is turned upside down until a guest asks him what it is.

Robinson wears a beige pilot’s jumpsuit even though he is no longer a pilot — a horrible helicopter crash 10 years ago made sure of that. Robinson was piloting a Bell 412 helicopter, rushing a 12-year-old car accident victim to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, when the chopper’s tail rotor, without warning, broke off over the Hollywood Hills. His chopper clipped tall fir trees before slamming into a patch of grass near a wealthy area in Los Feliz, killing four people: the injured girl, a “helitac” flight-crew member and two paramedics.

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